The world, as we know, is a smaller place. So discovering somewhere new is a rare opportunity. And that is exactly where Jean-Paul Kauffmann took me in his Voyage to Desolation Island.
Captain Cook had been there, on his final voyage, but the French had been before him, and Yves de Kerguelen returned again the following year, believing he had found the southern continent. The islands that take his name are part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, along with Adelie Land, the Crozet Islands and a few others. Civilisation is more than 2,000 miles distant. Arrival is by slow boat from Reunion, Ille de Bourbon, which itself is off the beaten track, east of Madagascar, and a long way from home.
Kerguelen lies in the band between the limit of the pack ice, and the possible extent of the drift ice. The wind blows, and blows and blows. Emperor penguins stand guard in their thousands.
For a hundred years after the 1770s the archipelago was largely forgotten. Then in 1874 it became one of the favoured places for the Transit of Venus. Norwegian whalers stationed themselves and from time to time the odd colonist has attempted a living, an escape. It was also a refuge for hit and run warships of the German navy.
There have been attempts to introduce wildlife. Cats have returned to their natural state, bred wildly. Sheep are left unshepherded; and reindeer and rabbits have browsed such vegeatation as they can find, destroying the Kerguelen cabbage, found now in only one isle.
Kauffmann set off to see what he could find. He was no stranger to solitude, and can tell us with some authority that “a person who is shipwrecked – or is a prisoner – has a rarer privilege: he has a higher mastery and enjoyment of the most trifling things. He can create a whole world from a book, a piece of metal, a landscape, from himself.”
His narrative is packed with anecdotes from previous visitors, from the hardy souls that man the research station and the supply boats that call in, from shipwrecked seamen stranded for years like Defoe’s chappie, and explorers. We learn of how landmarks are named; and of how the winds can never be tamed for they are relentless.
More than anything Kauffmann wanted to see the arch that bears the name of the archipelago. It stood twice the height of the famous arch in Paris, and was completely natural, a sea arch, massive stacks bridged atop. But on his last day the supply boat was confined to harbour and the voyage could not be made. He would never return to get the chance again.
Later though he discovered that he lost nothing, for the arch had been destroyed a century ago, victim of the seas and the winds. And only the skuas were there to see it happen.
I’m enjoying Kauffmann’s writing. The Black Room at Longwood has also been translated. It’s on my list.